BOSTON (CBS) – In 2013 the New England Patriots defense ranked 26th overall.
By comparison, the Super Bowl-winning Seattle Seahawks ranked no. 1 and the AFC champion Denver Broncos ranked 19th — so for the Patriots to make it back to the big game they’ll need to improve dramatically on that side of the ball, and by all accounts they will.
The Patriots bolstered their secondary in free agency by landing All Pro Darrelle Revis and the physical specimen that is Brandon Browner, a hard-hitting 6-foot-4 225-pound set-the-tone type of cornerback.
But that’s not all.
New England found a rotational defensive end for Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich in former Saints pass rusher Will Smith, and to improve in that area on the interior they used their first round pick on Florida defensive tackle Dominique Easley, known as a player that can wreak havoc on the interior offensive line.
Problems solved right?
There’s still plenty of questions that need answering, and so to keep and eye on these areas of concern we’ve outlined 5 stories (plus one bonus story!) to watch as we near training camp.
Stories To Watch On Defense:
5. Sophomore Slump For Jamie Collins?
Linebacker Jamie Collins has been described as a freak athlete, and that was on full display towards the end of his rookie year with the Patriots.
Collins’ versatility is something we haven’t seen in a linebacker since maybe ever. He lined up on receivers on the outside, tight ends in the slot and wherever else the team needed him.
As a Patriots fan, you just hope that he continues to make strides forward and not steps backwards, because we’ve seen this scene play out before for Patriots defensive players in their second year.
Devin McCourty, Brandon Spikes, Jermaine Cunningham, and Brandon Meriweather all regressed in their sophomore season, and as more gets put on the playbook plate of Collins you just hope he’s up for the challenge.
While we’re on the subject of Patriots defenders who plateaued in their second year, this leads us to our next story to watch in training camp…
4. The Development Of Dont’a Hightower
What is Dont’a Hightower?
Is he a run-stuffing tackler? Is he a playmaking fumble-forcer? A sack machine?
Nobody really knows.
With Brandon Spikes gone you’ll likely see Hightower move into that Mike linebacker role, the man in the middle of the defense mainly responsible for run coverage. For many fans, this is a make-or-break season for the third-year Alabama product.
After coming from Nick Saban’s highly-touted Crimson Tide defense, garnering a consensus All-American nod in 2011 and winning two BCS National titles (2010, 2012), Patriots fans expected more than five sacks, zero interceptions and zero forced fumbles in his first two years.
So while this may not be a make-or-break season in the truest sense of the phrase, the clock is certainly ticking in the minds of Pats fans waiting for Hightower to make an impact. For the Patriots defense to get where they need to get to in 2014, the development of Dont’a Hightower will be critical.
3. Defensive Line Health
Aside from Sealver Siliga, Chris Jones and Joe Vellano — in other words, guys that don’t really matter — basically the entire defensive line, specifically the interior, is coming off major injury.
That list includes: Vince Wilfork (Achilles), Tommy Kelly (knee), Dominique Easley (knee) and Will Smith (knee). Oh, and Armond Armstead recently announced his retirement.
It’s probably unrealistic to expect Wilfork (32 years old), Kelly (33) and Smith (33) to stay healthy for the entire preseason, regular season and playoffs, but Patriots fans know this and know this well: Rotating Jones, Vellano and Siliga is not good enough to get the job done.
The Patriots must have some semblance of a healthy defense in 2014 to make a run at the Lombardi Trophy and can ill-afford to be as hobbled as they were in 2013.
2. The Emergence Of Chandler Jones
Chandler Jones endured no such thing as the aforementioned “sophomore slump.”
His second season was much better than his first and — if you follow his trajectory — Jones is primed to have a breakout year in 2014.
Jones (as well as fellow linemate Rob Ninovich) played an NFL-high percentage of snaps at the defensive end position in 2013, and still sacked the quarterback a career-high 11.5 times in a Bill Belichick read-and-react defense.
With an improved secondary, perhaps Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia let the dogs loose so to speak and really let Jones get after it.
Having Will Smith to rotate and provide both he and Ninovich with a break every now and again will undoubtedly improve his stamina, so look for an even higher number of sacks this season in what should be a breakout year for the former Syracuse star.
1. Darrelle Revis’ Impact
Having played against Revis twice a year with the New York Jets from 2007-2012, the Patriots know just how good the All Pro can be.
Darrelle Revis — as Aqib Talib did to start 2013 before injury — routinely takes out the team’s best receiver and has the ability to shut down virtually half the football field. Admittedly, Revis did not look the same in Tampa Bay last season as he worked back from ACL surgery, but fans should expect all systems go for Revis in 2014.
98.5 The Sports Hub’s Michael Felger expects the Patriots to be a top 5 defense in 2014 with Revis being the main reason why, and there’s no reason to believe otherwise.
By holding down the opponent’s no. 1 receiver you not only make the secondary’s job easier, but you can feel free to call more blitzes and get after the quarterback because you’re more shored up in the back end.
Revis is that kind of player.
BONUS: Positional Battle In The Secondary
Okay one more.
It would appear on some level that the Patriots have a logjam in the secondary. In the modern NFL you typically employ five secondary players on the field at a given time: two safeties, two cornerbacks and one slot corner.
So when Brandon Browner comes back after serving a four-game suspension, you will have nine players vying for five starting spots.
Darrelle Revis, Devin McCourty and Brandon Browner are all locks to make the roster and start on a regular basis. That much we know. Then you have Duron Harmon, Patrick Chung, Logan Ryan, Tavon Wilson, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, Kanorris Davis and rookie Jemea Thomas fighting for playing time.
The battle in the secondary will probably become the most heated in training camp as Wilson, Chung, Davis and Thomas are no sure bets to make the team, and Ryan and Harmon must prove their worth in their second seasons, with one of them maybe having to learn a new position.
Anything we left out? Sound off in the comments section below!
MORE PATRIOTS COVERAGE FROM CBS BOSTON